With Mayor Arroyo voting ‘No,’ city commissioners refuse to settle lawsuit by selling property associated with Paul Thorpe Jr. Park

EDM-Sarasota had proposed an eight-unit food court to draw residents to the area and reduce problems with vagrancy

This is a view of how the Palate food court would appear at night. The triangular bar is visible on the far right of the upper story. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With Mayor Erik Arroyo dissenting, the Sarasota City Commission this week voted 4-1 to refuse an offer of $275,000 for property that a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled belongs to the city.

The proposal from EDM-Sarasota LLC, whose principal is Jonathan Mitchell, called for purchasing land that the city sold to State Street Partners in 2016, plus two adjoining segments that City Attorney Robert Fournier says he believes a judge also would find to be in city ownership.

The plan, as William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, Mitchell and other team members explained, would have been to create a food court with eight dining options next to Paul Thorpe Jr. Park. The two-story structure would have included a triangular bar on the upper level.

The commercial venture would have been called Palate, a nod to people’s food tastes and a reference to the wooden boards that artists use, with paint, in creating their work, as Sophie Ruiz, a student at the Ringling College of Art + Design, explained it.

“None of the area designated as Thorpe Park has been proposed to be taken or sold to EDM,” Mitchell told the city commissioners. “The official boundaries of Thorpe Park will not change,” he added, attributing that comment to City Attorney Robert Fournier during the City Commission’s Dec. 6, 2021 regular meeting.

“This proposal is not encroaching into the park,” Merrill stressed.

During his remarks to the commissioners, Fournier objected to those statements, reminding them that on Dec. 6, he had laid out EDM-Sarasota’s offer to purchase the city property for $275,000 as a settlement to a lawsuit that the city won at the Circuit Court level. EDM-Sarasota has appealed that ruling to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal.

This graphic, showing the pergola next to Paul Thorpe Jr. Park, also has a line visible over the pavers to denote that the pergola would have to be removed if the property were sold to EDM-Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The statement that the food court “would not encroach into the park is really a disingenuous argument,” Fournier pointed out on Jan. 18. By describing that as “disingenuous,” he continued, he was referring to “pretending to know less than you actually know or should know.”

EDM-Sarasota objected to the city’s 2016 conveyance of the land to State Street Partners LLC, he explained. The city reacquired the property two years later, Fournier added. Yet, the dispute over the ownership continued until Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh ruled in the city’s favor last year, he said.

Barbara Campo, one of the 29 members of the public who addressed the commissioners about the food court concept, used illustrations to show that the pergola — or trellis — added next to the park as part of recent city improvements would be lost.

Mary Fuerst, chair of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) advisory board, pointed out that the swing set “that the kids and families use,” which also was added to the park a few years ago, would have to be removed along with the trellis.

Fuerst further reminded the commissioners that in late spring of 2019, a vendor wanted to permanently place an ice cream truck on the park property, and the commissioners voted against that.

“Why would anyone so obsessively focus on getting 30 feet of dirt? Yes, 30 feet of dirt,” Campo asked in her remarks.

If EDM-Sarasota won commission approval to buy the property for $275,000, she added, she expected the company eventually would want the rest of the park, and that could lead to the construction of a 10-foot-tall condominium complex, as allowed by the Downtown Core zoning in that area of the city.

Other speakers suggested the same scenario.

This section of the City of Sarasota Zoning Code provides details about the Downtown Core district. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted that the Downtown Core zoning allows 50 residential units per acre and “zero setbacks” from the streets.

Mitchell disputed the notion that he had such plans in mind.

“Let the court do the work,” Campo told the commissioners.

Following the public comments and the board discussion, Commissioner Hagen Brody concurred with Campo’s point about the litigation. He noted that the city used to lose many lawsuits, which meant the city also lost a lot of money in fighting them. Finally, Brody continued, the city has begun winning cases, such as the one with EDM-Sarasota. “We’re no longer a financial punching bag for the community.”

Brody added, “I do want to see this lawsuit through to the end.”

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch asked City Attorney Fournier, “You feel like we’re on pretty solid legal ground with [the EDM-Sarasota appeal]?”

“Yes,” he responded immediately.

Ahearn-Koch also asked City Manager Marlon Brown to state how much the city paid for the improvements to the park before the city rededicated it to Paul Thorpe Jr. in 2017. Brown said the figure was $1.3 million. Additionally, Brown noted that a recent appraisal for the land EDM-Sarasota was seeking found its value to be $990,000. The market value of the downtown Sarasota property is $135 a square foot, Brown said.

Ahearn-Koch then told her colleagues that the other two portions of city property near the park that EDM-Sarasota wanted as part of the settlement, plus the primary section, were appraised with a total value of $1,270,350.

This graphic, included in the EDM-Sarasota settlement offer, shows the location of a proposed ‘liner building’ next to the park. The yellow portion of the graphic is the property that is at the heart of the litigation. EDM-Sarasota also wanted to purchase the green and reddish-orange sections. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Fournier also pointed out that the litigation between the city and EDM-Sarasota had added up to a little more than $425,000.

Both Fournier and Brown told the commissioners they recommended against the settlement offer.

Brody ended up making the motion to deny the EDM-Sarasota proposal, though he noted the “valuable conversation” that took place that afternoon. “I think the concept is great,” he said of the food court. “I just don’t know if this is the right place for it.”

“I don’t know where else I could conceivably do it,” Mitchell of EDM-Sarasota told Brody, given the cost of land in downtown Sarasota because of developers’ interest in constructing tall condominium complexes. For example, Mitchell said, the parcel where Nancy’s Bar-B-Q restaurant used to stand — about 400 feet from the park — is empty, but “the price per square foot is too high …”

Before casting his “No” vote, Mayor Arroyo said he saw both sides of the issue. “That land [by Thorpe Park] is worth significantly more than is being offered.”

Yet, Arroyo continued, he has seen homeless people bathing in the Mermaid Fountain that is a focal point of the park, and he has read the 2001 city master plan crafted by urban planner Andres Duany. That plan describes how to create activity in parks, Arroyo noted.

In its rehabilitation of the park several years ago, the city refurbished the artwork created by Nancy Goodheart Matthews. File photo

(One of the speakers that afternoon was Nancy Goodheart Matthews, who was commissioned by the city to design the Mermaid Fountain. “It is registered as a sculptural monument with the Smithsonian Institution,” she pointed out. It “continues to hold a special place in my heart,” she added, because it is “the only one of my creations accessible to the general public.”)

“I think what you’re proposing is needed by the city,” Arroyo told Mitchell. “Activating parks and getting everybody out and walking and finding a way to protect our green space from people defecating on it, I think, should be a priority.”

During his remarks, Mitchell also talked about the fact that, since EDM-Sarasota owns all of the Northern Trust property next to the park, the “physical presence” of Northern Trust security personnel “will deter panhandlers and others who would otherwise create an uncomfortable environment for law-abiding citizens” at the park.

This aerial map shows the Northern Trust property, including the parking garage, outlined in purple, adjacent to the park. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst

Philip DiMaria, planning project manager for the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, told the board members that he has lived in downtown Sarasota for about five years, and he frequently visits Thorpe Park. “There’s no doubt that this is a beautiful urban space,” he said, but the food court “would be an improvement.” That would ensure what DiMaria referred to as “eyes on the street,” which would help prevent crime in the area.

Finally, before calling for the vote on Brody’s motion, Arroyo said, “I believe it’s improper to just shut the door on this.”

‘I just want it better’

(From left) Sophie Ruiz, William Merrill III, Mark Sultana, Jonathan Mitchell and Philip DiMaria appear before the commissioners. News Leader image

During the EDM-Sarasota presentation, principal Mitchell talked of his background — both in his native Los Angeles and in Sarasota.

He prefaced that portion of his comments with the statement, “There have been a lot of disparaging remarks made” about him since the settlement offer was delivered to the city.

While he and his family were developing property in Los Angeles, he noted, they “dedicated 2 acres of extremely valuable land fronting on famed Wilshire Boulevard … to be a beautifully landscaped park,” which the city has permanently protected.

As chair and CEO of his family’s foundation, he continued, he had constructed medical centers, kindergartens, high schools, and daycare centers “for both seniors and children.

“I established an entrepreneurial program at a major university,” he added, and “at one of California’s largest private high schools, I established an academy of science and technology where students are winning international competitions.

“After relocating to Sarasota,” Mitchell noted, he served on the board and the executive committee of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Foundation. He is a past board member of the Van Wezel Foundation, he said, and he is a trustee of the Ringling College of Art + Design.

“I love this city,” Mitchell told the commissioners. “I want to make my life here. … And I only want it to be the greatest city in America, which I believe it is today. I just want it better.”

In terms of making an investment in the food court concept, Mitchell asserted at one point, “I could do a whole lot better.” At best, he added, he would get “a nominal return” on money he put into the project.

“It’s not really even worth what I’m offering for it,” Mitchell said of the city land.

In describing the food court plans, Mitchell explained that the eight units would be occupied by “locally sourced restaurants.” Moreover, he emphasized, “The project does not detract from Thorpe Park or its memorable, artistically sculpted fountain.”

“If anything,” he added, “the development will serve as a catalyst” to attract more people to the area.

In showing the commissioners this graphic, attorney William Merrill III uses a pen (seen in the lower righthand corner) to explain that EDM-Sarasota owns the 5-foot strip of land adjacent to the park. That strip is depicted in white. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Yet, during her turn at the microphone, Nancy Krohngold of Nancy’s Bar-B-Q pointed out to the commissioners, “Downtown Sarasota already boasts an embarrassment of riches, with eateries of every description.” The EDM-Sarasota food court, she said, would pull customers away from other restaurants, as well as food vendors at the Sarasota Farmers Market on Saturdays.

At least six dining establishments or coffee shops are located within a quarter-mile radius of the park, Krohngold added.

“Seven or eight operators on one small footprint will only cannibalize one another’s business to fight for viability,” she pointed out.

Moreover, she stressed to the commissioners, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a “huge exodus of downtown workers,” and even more will be leaving after Sarasota County Government offices are relocated from Ringling Boulevard to a new building on Cattlemen Road in about four years.

She encouraged the commissioners to ask why Caragiulos Italian Restaurant on Palm Avenue, State Street Eating House and the Bijou Café on First Street no longer serve lunch “and have no plans to ever reopen for lunch.”

Later, Vice Mayor Kyle Scott Battie talked of frequenting downtown. “There’s a lot of vacancies down there,” he said.

Mitchell reminded the commissioners that a previous City Commission approved the idea of a “liner building” between the park and the Northern Trust parking garage, to screen the garage from what was then Pineapple Park.

This is another rendering of the Palate food court. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Mark Sultana of DSDG architects in Sarasota, who worked on the design of the food court — which was based on a concept created by Ringling College students — talked of how the park would provide “backdrop scenery for the diners.”

“We believe Sarasota needs a place for showcasing the creativity and vibrancy of our community,” Ruiz, who led the college team that created Palate, told the commissioners.

A groundswell of opposition

The very first member of the public to address the proposal in remarks to the commissioners this week was Lou Costa, president of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations in Sarasota (CCNA). “Downtown open space is rare and must be protected,” he said.

David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, presented a series of graphics to the board members to illustrate his points. His organization, he explained, has estimated the downtown population at 12,000. Already, he continued, 607 new residential units are under construction, “with roughly 1,000 in the pipeline,” based on applications that city staff has been reviewing.

Therefore, Lough said, in the next five to seven years, the downtown Sarasota population is expected to grow by 2,500 residents.

He then presented the board a graph showing that the number of 2021 downtown residential property transactions that had closed exceeded the 2020 figure by 49%, and the total number of sales in 2021 — 700 — was up 85% over the 2019 count.

The median sales price last year was $879,000, he added — “almost $900,000.” Yet, EDM-Sarasota wants “to acquire [the city land] for a third of the cost of one of those 700 units.”

This is one of the graphics that David Lough showed the commissioners. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Don’t do this,” he urged the commissioners. “This doesn’t make sense.”

At one point during the discussion with the EDM-Sarasota team, Mayor Arroyo asked how the company had arrived at the $275,000 offer. Attorney Merrill replied that that was the price the city paid State Street Partners to buy back the property. (Fournier noted that the city ended up paying more than $275,000.)

Paul Thorpe Jr. Park has features designed to enhance its attraction to residents and visitors, the city announced after renovations were completed in early 2020. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Another advocate for maintaining Thorpe park as it is, Jude Levy, emphasized the need for pocket parks in the city. She also noted the removal of benches from downtown city parks, a measure seen at the time as a means of deterring homeless individuals from lingering in the locations. Levy then referenced the benches that were added to Thorpe Park when it was improved. “Quit ripping out the heart of the city and leave some places where people can sit!”

Only three speakers offered support for Mitchell’s plans. Among them, Ian Black, whose eponymous commercial real estate firm is based in the city, acknowledged a professional relationship with EDM-Sarasota. Nonetheless, Black pointed out that Thorpe Park is under-utilized.

Additionally, Martin Hyde called the park “a vagrant square. It’s not a park.”

Conversely, Elizabeth Davis, the daughter-in-law of Paul Thorpe Jr., told the commissioners, “Once city land is gone, you can’t ever get it back.”

“This park needs to be preserved for posterity,” artist Goodheart Matthews said.